The Wheel Mages

The Wheel Mages was written by Aimee Davis and first published in 2016. It is a fantasy novel which focuses on a water mage on a mission to hunt down rogue mages that threaten her clan. The book forms the first part of the Changing Tides series and is followed by The Blood Mage (2017).

As the last of the water mages, seventeen-year-old Alena Kozlov has a lot resting on her shoulders. She has just passed her final test and been accepted into the Sanctum, meaning that for the first time in recent history they have a full Wheel – a group of mages representing each of the four elements. While Alena’s existence is precious to them, the Sanctum cannot miss out on the opportunity to use the Wheel’s increased power to root out some of the enemies that threaten their way of life.

All over the world, dark mages are abusing their power in direct rebellion against the Sanctum’s strict rules. Alena and her allies – Nikolai, Filipe and Catalina – are dispatched to the city in order to hunt them out. While Filipe and Catalina masquerade as nobility to enter high society, Alena and Nikolai take advantage of Alena’s history as a street urchin to set up a drug den and lure in the lower elements.

However, it is their enemies that manage to find them first. Alena is approached by a nobleman who recognises her as a water mage and wishes to trade her for his sister. It seems that someone else is trying to gather a Wheel of their own and is in desperate need for Alena’s power. In order to find the rogue mages, Alena must tread a different path. However, it’s not long before her discoveries shake her faith in the Sanctum. Could be that the rogues are right to rebel, and that it is the Sanctum that is corrupt to the core?

I was first attracted to The Wheel Mages by its blurb, which promises a fantasy story in the same vein as the work of Leigh Bardugo and Kristin Cashore. While I did have problems with Shadow and Bone and Graceling, both had impressively detailed world building and so I was very curious to give Davis’s debut novel a shot. Unfortunately, I was left disappointed. While there are some similarities with Bardugo’s work in the Russian character names, this was really where the similarities ended.

To begin with the positive, the early chapters of The Wheel Mages were quick to draw me into Alena’s world, introducing the Sanctum and what they believed before hurrying Alena away on her first mission to uncover a group of rogue mages. Through this, we begin to see the impressive scope of Davis’s world building. The setting of this story feels huge – a bustling city with a sharp social divide. The people who populate this world range from the cloistered mages to the social elite to simple factory workers. Unusually for a fantasy novel of this type, the book had an Industrial Age feel and spent a lot of time illustrating the difference between the highborn and working classes.

Unfortunately, beyond this, the world building grew increasingly muddled as the story progressed. An early exchange between Alena and one of the other Sanctum mages revealed hints of conflicting religions yet this amounted to nothing. The differences between the different factions of mages and non-mages at play were also very confusing.

As far as I could tell, there were at least three different sorts of mage – Sanctum mages, rogue mages and dark mages – yet the difference between the latter two was somewhat unclear. There was also indication that many non-mages did not know that mages existed (it was forbidden for a Sanctum mage to reveal their magic to a non-mage), yet a lot of the highborn non-mages still seemed to be aware of magic. I was also unclear how the Sanctum enforced this rule in the first place given their affluence (which presumably had to come from somewhere), or why some members of Sanctum were Lords and Ladies, while others worked as servants. What made these magic users so different from one another was really unclear.

Added to this was the confusion over how the book’s primary plot point – the Wheel – actually functioned. As a Wheel had not existed in so long, it was clear in the novel that all people knew was that the combination of the four magics made the mages more powerful than normal. Early hints in the story seemed to indicate that an emotional connection was also required, but this seemed to fall away in the story’s final quarter. Indeed, it ultimately seemed that you didn’t even need four people to form a Wheel, though I won’t go into that any further here because I don’t want to spoil anything for you.

The plot wasn’t helped by the book’s incredibly slow pace. The various story threads didn’t really come together until well past the 70% mark of the Kindle version, and the climax only really started around 96% of the way through. Most of the build up to this was just filler, with the protagonists expositing about how they needed to find the rogue mages while seeming to do very little about this. They were particularly inactive during the lengthy section set in the apium den, in which Nikolai and Alena basically just waited for a clue to fall into their laps. Most of the build up to this was purely conversation. Alena expressed a desire to be more proactive, and Nikolai grew angry and told her not to endanger herself. This was repeated for a good quarter of the novel.

The characters were also a bit varied. To the novel’s credit, each of the protagonists were very different and their personalities did a good job of reflecting their elements. Catalina, the fire mage, was passionate and vibrant, while Nikolai (whose element was earth) was solid and reliable. However, this did become problematic when it came to Alena. It was exposited early in the tale that water magic was deeply rooted in emotions, which made water mages a bit more sensitive than the rest. This manifested itself in rather massive mood swings. Alena would see something distressing and then laugh, burst into tears, and rage in quick succession. This made her feel massively irrational at times. She took every little thing so personally and so, despite the fact that she was seventeen, she ultimately felt very childish.

I also didn’t rate the love triangle between Alena, Filipe and Nikolai. This is partially a personal thing (I do hate love triangles), but I still thought that this relationship felt unnatural. While Alena had known Nikolai for a long time, he was never especially nice to her. He was overbearingly protective and seemed to largely ignore Alena’s feelings for the first half of the novel. Yet, on the other hand, Alena took to Filipe far too quickly. Most of their friendship was built off-page, as we never see anything of the two weeks that they “trained together”. Because of this, it felt like they went from hating each other to passion within a matter of pages. I was left hoping that Alena ditched them both and shacked up with Catalina.

So anyway, to conclude, it was very clear to me that Davis isn’t a bad writer but I still didn’t enjoy The Wheel Mages. The book felt unfocused and its pacing was incredibly slow. I may pick up its sequel at some point to see if things improve, but I’m not really in any hurry to.

The Wheel Mages can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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